Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

A couple of weeks ago, after months of squelch, The Priory meadow was dry enough to support the weight of the Etesia ride-on mower … as well as my added weight sitting on top.  Had I tried to use it before the ground was firm, the Etesia would have carved up the grass like a Panzer on fondant.

And so, one sunny morning, I drove the circuitous route out of the garden, through two gates, along the west pond and out to an acre of ankle-deep grass.

Meadow paths

Each spring, I recut a network of pathways and mow them weekly until all of the meadow is shorn in autumn.  The paths are very visible after the meadow is cut in September (above): bright green bands curving to select rendezvous but after a spring surge of grass, they are mostly invisible.  Nevermind, I know by now where the paths should run; where to steer, where to avoid.

Common spotted orchid

The distinctive foliage of the common spotted orchid

I keep to the same layout year after year because I’m a creature of habit … and to avoid flowering bulbs.  I still have a little leeway however, a little discretion to swerve around something special, something I want to encourage.  Like an orchid.  Or a wagtail.

Fritillaria meleagris (1)

A very good mower indeed – the Etesia Hydro 80

In November 2009, I planted 600 Fritillaria meleagris bulbs on the meadow as well as daffodils and Camassia.  The Camassia quamash has flourished, the daffodils less so.

Fritillaria meleagris (3)

It is the fritillaries that have really prospered in this their favoured habitat: wet meadow.  Wildflower meadows are far rarer than they were a hundred years ago, of course – wet ones are even rarer.  It seemed obvious to try to develop one at The Priory, on what had been a large expanse of mostly wildlife-devoid rough mown grass.

Fritillaria meleagris (7)

The snake’s head fritillary is my favourite flower but I can’t explain why.  Any more than I can explain why four is my favourite number and green my favourite colour.  It just is.

Fritillaria meleagris (10)

This has been a good year for snake’s heads – better than last – but if there are colonies of several dozen, I still haven’t quite the number, quite the spectacle I expected when I slipped the bulbs into spade slits all those years ago.

Fritillaria meleagris (9)

Vita Sackville-West called the it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.”  But then Vita Sackville-West was very wrong.  Mournful isn’t a word that springs into my head when I see these beautiful, delicately patterned bells quivering in an April breeze, pulling in passing bumble bees; with an occasional and very lovely white, green-lined companion.  Sinister, Ms Sackville-West?  Don’t talk nonsense.

Fritillaria meleagris (8)

There is some debate, some muttering, as to whether Fritillaria meleagris is a true UK native … or a cultivated plant which slyly cast its seed over a garden wall.  But as it’s recorded as growing wild in C17th England, it is as native to me as incomers stinging nettle and ground elder.  And of the three, I know which one I want.

Fritillary seed

In June, I profligately scatter my seed

Fritillaria meleagris (2)

so that, one day, there might be as many nodding, sinister plants as I could wish for.  Can you tell that Vita’s comment really irks me?

Three years ago, I wrote: “The snake’s head fritillaries have been pretty good. Not fall-over-fantastic but then I’m resigned to it taking years, decades even, for them to fully colonise the meadow.”

Meadow mown paths

I’ve now re-cut the paths for another year

Why then, knowing that, do I always hope that the display will be marvellously better than the year before?  Silly optimism?

Yep, but better a silly optimist than a silly pessimist.

26 thoughts on “Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

  1. I am also very keen on snakeshead fritillaries, I have grown them myself with mixed success, good in Reading, poor in Devon. They lift my spririts when they flower and I have a strong memory of visiting the fritillary field at Magdalene College Oxford, a sight hard to better when they are in flower.

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  2. I have to hold my hands up and say I quite like Vita’s description – in purely descriptive terms!

    I quite like ‘sinister’ and ‘mournful’, and indeed the deep, sumptuous colours of decay… these splendid plants change nature according to a writer’s aim for the evocation of startling images… She might have said they were gay harlequins, the shade of a benevolent monarchy on a less gloomy day…

    But what I like even better is your defense of their honour, and dare I say? Your pining for them in multitude… I hope they show up for you! Whatever the mood, they are special.

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    • You’re right – it is a finely written description by our Vita, if plainly silly. Maybe she was just having a black kind of day rather than white. Thanks for the good wishes. I shan’t be at The Priory very much longer but I hope to be able to visit in the years to come and check whether my pining paid off. D

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  3. Do frits fall within the group of plants loosely described as “if they decide to grow they will; if they don’t try again, then give up”? Last autumn I made a second attempt at trying to establish a little colony. Out of the 50 bulbs I planted, two eventually grew. One flowered. The flower was deformed. So I proceed to “give up”. Shame, as they’re a lovely flower which I’d hoped would give me a head start in Lily Beetle War 2018 before the lilies get going. Are you making an orchid map for whoever follows you at The Priory?

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    • I’ve tried many plants that fall into your category, John – choysia, olive, ceanothus and Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’ have all died horribly at The Priory. I was going to ask whether your ground was wet enough for fritillaria but then remembered you live in Wales.

      What I haven’t suffered from though is lily beetle on my fritillaria, whereas they descend with a steely determination on my lilies. Weird.

      As to your last question – no and the garden’s future is in some doubt other than for simple mowing duties after I leave. Which is sad.

      D

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  4. We need optimism, in life and in gardens. I planted dozens of camassia last year in what I like to call the Big Meadow. In England they naturalize, I believe. In Quebec, I’ll be lucky if they survive, much less thrive. Still, I’m hoping.

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    • I hope they work for you, Pat. I regret planting camassias now in what should be an English flower meadow but they are so happy there and perform so beautifully, I don’t mind so very much. D

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  5. Vita was nuts. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was clearly partial to fritilaria meleagris. I’ve just done the annual repotting of mine here. Have got a few nice big pots full with some of my biggest bulbs (corms?) being golf ball sized. I really love them. IOur ground is unsuitable so in pots they go and they’ve done well. What’s the deal with the white ones though? Is it true they randomly pop up? Are they a different variety?

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    • Hi Danielle, sounds like you’ve had more luck growing them in pots than poor Peter below. I thought I’d better double check whether I’d got it wrong calling them ‘bulbs’ rather than corms but (for once) I didn’t make a mistake and they are the former.

      The white ones, as far as I know, are just a naturally occurring sub-variety and you can buy just white bulbs. I can’t remember now whether the bulbs I bought were marked as a mix of the two or whether the whites have just magically appeared amongst the purple (which is what I’ve always supposed). D

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  6. They are also my favourite flower. Late last year I planted 8 in a pot and waited for a small but spectacular display. Only two emerged from the compost last month, neither yielding a bloom. Nevermind, I suspect bulb quality was the problem; I’ll try again.

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    • You have exquisite taste, Peter. I’ve no advice for growing them in a pot, I’m afraid, never having done so. I did plant half a dozen in a corner of my lawn once and then sheared the grass short after they’d died down. A very small scale meadow. D

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      • Hi David and Peter,
        I’ve had success growing them in pots. Growing them in the ground is not an option (we have heavy clay that dries right out in Summer) and did trial and error for a few years (at least) until I achieved success.
        I make my own potting mix – 3 parts good quality potting mix, 1 part good quality compost, 1 part peat (or peat substitute), 1 part propagation sand, 1 part perlite. Mix very well. Use a large (at least 12 inches across) ceramic pot that is glazed. Terracotta is too porous and dries out rapidly over Summer (we’re in Tasmania so temperate climate but not hot summers). Plant bulbs on their side at 3-4 inches deep in a little bed of propagation sand. Once pot is full, top dress with grit. Water well. Keep just damp all year around, (not wet) and allow mix to get a bit wetter here and there during growing season. Feed occasionally with suitable liquid feed. Bring out of a sheltered shady spot once growth appears. Once growth dies back, back back into sheltered shady spot and reduce watering but still keep dampish. Phew! Good luck 🙂

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        • Thanks for that very detailed response – that should help Peter. Incidentally, the ground on the meadow is also heavy clay which cracks right open in summer but is sodden over winter. I guess they will grow where they want to grow! D

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  7. Your irritation with Vita Sackville-West is totally justified, Dave, and if you need backup in the upcoming gardening club riots Robert foresees, you just let me know. Those are beautiful. 600 bulbs—that must have been an epic autumn of planting! xxS

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    • I told Robert that I’d be hiding in the shed when the braying mob arrives. It’s quite cosy in there (with a boltable door) and a fine outlook. With Pimms too, we’ll have a fine time. That autumn, I was in a bulb planting frenzy. Worth it though. Dx

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  8. It is like all else we do when gardening, hope. There is hope for the future. Your frits will be glorious to those in the future. Vita was very opinionated. Everyone has their own opinions. I sure don’t listen to most. I like my own opinions. 😉 And I like your frits. I would love a wet meadow to watch frits grow.

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    • I normally let opinions I don’t agree with slide, but not when it comes to frittilaries! Cutting the meadow in late summer/autumn is an awful lot of work and money, Lisa. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have the chance to create and manage one, but unless I had far more money, I wouldn’t want myself. Much better to play at being a rich landowner whilst at work. D

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  9. Wow, trash-talking Vita Sackville-West – – I’m envisioning a gardening club chugging Pimm’s Cups and then descending upon you, swinging secateurs, pitchforks, and overgrown marrows. (Yes, I’ve read too many P.G.Wodehouse stories) I agree with you, no idea why someone would think they’re sinister, to me they look like very fancy ball gowns, and great colors. Maybe if they promote the fun-sounding “frittilaries” and lose the “snake’s head” – – (the latter name reminds me of a loathsome eel-like fish, Northern Snakeheads, an invasive pest which may be getting into New York lakes) Just needs re-branding and a glance at your photos for everyone to admire them. Enjoyed this post. RPT

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